Oceans of Grain

Scott Reynolds Nelson

Throughout history, the cultivation and distribution of grain has played a pivotal role in shaping the destiny of humankind. Surplus grain production facilitated urbanization and the rise of complex societies. Grain, transported along river routes, overland trade routes, and across seas, forged connections between disparate regions and cultures. Interruptions in grain supply due to conflicts or political upheavals often led to economic turmoil and civil unrest.

In this book, author Scott Reynolds Nelson traces the flow of grain and how the two most productive regions, Ukraine and the United States. As the Europe’s breadbasket, the control over Ukraine’s grain production and trade routes has been a factor in influencing regional power dynamics and the relationships between neighboring empires and states. Russia’s expansion under Catherine the Great meant that Russia now controlled Europe’s grain production. However, the Ottoman empire controlled the trade routes via the Bosporus strait. This allowed Russia to leverage its control over Ukrainian grain production for economic, political, and strategic purposes – and also explains her interest in Constantinople. Controlling Constantinople would provide Russia with access to key maritime trade routes and strengthen its influence over naval and commercial activities in the region and fully control the grain trade.

The United States became a major grain exporter during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with significant expansion occurring in the latter half of the 19th century. According to Nelson the Homestead Act of 1862, the expansion of the railroads and above all the the practice of futures trading helped to ensure stability in the supply chain, provided a mechanism for managing price risk and allowed the United States to surpass the Ukraine in the world grain trade.

Nelson traces the role of grain and its influence on social-economic topics. He paints the grain trade acting as a catalyst, drawing together both labor and capital where sustenance is abundant and harbors are deep. The grain trade sparked waves of immigration, fueled the engines of industrialization, and gave rise to sprawling urban landscapes. Cities like London, Paris, and Amsterdam saw their populations doubling, interspersed with the various grain crises. Nelson pays his respect to Israel Lazarevich Gelfand (better known as Parvus), “a famous revolutionary whom you probably never have heard of”, who believed that the grain trade played a crucial role in shaping the dynamics of imperialist powers, economic exploitation, and social unrest, which in turn could provide opportunities for revolutionary change.

Oceans of Grain is a captivating journey and narrative unfolds against the vibrant backdrop of Athens, Constantinople, and Moscow and the American plains. The narrative unearths the intricate connections between the ascent of Germany and Italy, the decline of Austria and Turkey, and Europe’s feverish scramble for empire.

The book’s resonance was made even more palpable to me, as news of Russia’s decision not to extend the Ukraine grain deal in July 2023 was taken while I read the book. “Oceans of Grain” made me understand the implications, shining a light on the multifaceted dance between grain, geopolitics, and the destiny of humankind.

  • Scott Reynolds Nelson

    Oceans of Grain: How American Wheat Remade the World

    ISBN: 9781541646469 | Pages: 368 pages | Publication date: February 22, 2022

    Buy on Amazon

Photo credit: WallPaper Flare (link)

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